The torn curtain of love is the theme of Paweł Pawlikowski’s mysterious, musically glorious and visually ravishing film set in cold war Poland and beyond. The crystalline black-and-white cinematography exalts its moments of intimate grimness and its dreamlike showpieces of theatrical display. It is an elliptical, episodic story of imprisonment and escape, epic in scope. A love affair thrashes and wilts in the freedom of a foreign country, and then begins to submit to the homeland’s doomy gravitational pull. Like Pawlikowski’s previous picture, Ida, this is about the dark heart of Poland itself. The wounded love at its centre surfaces from the depths of cynicism, exhaustion and state-sponsored submission and fear.

In Poland of the late 1940s, as the cold war’s snowy chill begins to settle, a musician and a broadcaster are touring remote villages with their recording equipment, earnestly listening to folk songs, hoping to recruit a fresh-faced troupe of young people for a show of authentic traditional Polish song and dance. These youngsters will be billeted in a country house for a month – as if in some prehistoric un-televised reality show – and drilled in picturesque Polish musical forms, with some tested for starring roles, ready to be shown off at theatrical evenings to party officials and maybe even politically congenial foreigners.

The people doing the choosing are the darkly handsome pianist and composer Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and the producer Irena (Agata Kulesza), who appear to have some emotional history together. But Wiktor’s eye is caught by one of his auditionees: the pertly blonde teenager Zula (Joanna Kulig). Immediately, it is clear that Zula is a kind of fake: she is from the city, not the ethnically pure villages the atavistic Polish state prefers. (The supervising party official, Kaczmarek, played by Borys Szyc, is a racist who disapproves of ethnic Carpathian songs in Lemko dialect.)

The chirruping number Zula gives them is not a Polish folk song at all, but is plagiarised from a Russian movie. No matter. She has that authentic-seeming, cherubically Sovietised “look”. Wiktor is further erotically fascinated by the fact that Zula has done prison time for attacking her abusive father with a knife.

Soon, Wiktor and Zula are having a passionate affair and he has made Zula into a star. Their relationship comes to a crisis when they get to perform in East Berlin and there is a perfect opportunity to defect: agreeing to meet in a certain spot at a certain time. Will one of them lose their nerve? It is a story that is to find its strange aftermath in 1950s Paris, where their fates are entwined with a French poet and movie director (elegant cameos by Jeanne Balibar and Cédric Kahn).

Perhaps the most important moment in the film is when a worker is hanging a banner outside the house where the young singers are to stay. It reads: “We welcome tomorrow.” Inevitably, the man falls off his ladder as he is nailing it up. And of course, they are not “welcoming tomorrow” – they are welcoming the past, a hyperreal, state-sanctioned, quaintly fabricated time of “folk” tradition that will combine Soviet obedience and ethnic conformity, this second concept being one that has very much survived the second world war. It is far from the real musical “tomorrow” of western jazz and rock’n’roll, which the Polish authorities fear and dislike.

But their musical ensemble performances are staggering – brilliantly choreographed by Pawlikowski and filmed by cinematographer Łukasz Żal. They are mesmeric and strange in their glassy-eyed conviction. There is a stunning touch when the colossal, nightmarish image of Stalin appears to drift past the choir’s heads. A wide shot discloses this is a background display, and then another shot shows a stagehand off to the side stolidly cranking the handle that is bringing up Stalin’s face.

Everyone, from the lowliest singer to the highest, most dead-eyed official, knows the stakes. This kind of genteel artistic display is vital for foreign diplomacy, for establishing relations with Russia and a prestigious display for the west. It is a world of privileged foreign travel, with fears of defection. Will the foreign world of Paris really bring happiness? Is a “cold war” what all relationships finally degenerate into? Or is it that this clenched, fearful world of Poland, with its quasi-miracle of communist showbusiness triumph, was the only real nursery for Zula and Wiktor’s ecstatic love? There is an exquisite chill to this film.